Blackface At The Tate: Artist Larry Achiampong On Britain's 'Others'

Blackface At The Tate: Artist Larry Achiampong On Britain's 'Others'

"I was depicting the experience of being treated like an alien based on the colour of my skin" Interview with British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong

A man dressed in a sharp grey suit glides into view of the patrons at London's Tate Modern Gallery. They turn and stare as he, accompanied by a woman dressed in pink Americana, walks towards the gallery’s Picasso Wing. He will sit there for an hour, balancing on his shoulders a head which entirely covers his own. The head is big and round, its blackness punctuated only by a pair of crimson lips.

This is Larry Achiampong, a British-Ghanaian artist whouses a range of media to reinterpret the visual and aural archives that he has inherited. In the past Achiampong has delved into  the sounds of his upbringing by Ghanaian parents to create mixtapes Meh Mogya (My Blood) and its follow up More Mogya. Some of his most arresting visual works are digitally manipulated family photographs. In these, he overlays the faces of loved ones with the black head and red lipped motif that he calls "cloudface." His Tate performance piece brought cloudface to life for the purposes of the group show Project Visible

In photo-form, Achiampong's "Cloudface" is jarring.  The intimacy of the family portrait, an index of black survival in a hostile 1980s Britain, is interrupted by the derogatory iconography of blackness that we associate with blackface performance, golliwog dolls and the pickaninny caricature. But this interruption serves an important purpose: to remind a forgetful British public about Empire, colonialism and its more domestic forms of racism, too. In Achiampong's words "just because Golliwogs and Blackface are not paraded in the way they were in the past, it doesn’t mean the world has thrown that type of mentality to the dust. I think in the UK we are quite guilty of sweeping moments like these under the carpet in the hope that no one will unearth them.”

This is a crucial moment to unearth them. In recent months the UK Border Agency has unleashed officers on train stations to stop and question people about their immigration status based on race and accent. Dawn raids continue unabated and the official discourse around immigration throbs with xenophobia, despite the very real human costs of European border policy. With his performance, Achiampong aimed to think  "the experience of being categorized and treated like an alien based on the colour of my skin and my origins." Placing this overdetermined body in full view, Achiampong also calls our attention to the ongoing and relentless processes by which some people are marked as expendable, disposable and ungrievable "others".

Okayafrica: Can you describe your performance piece at the Tate Modern? 

Larry Achiampong: I brought the original cloudface character (from the 'LEMME SKOOL U' series) to life. He walked through Tate Modern from level 0 to level 2 and into the 'Poetry and Dream' display rooms. He then proceeded to one of the spaces containing painting and sculpture by Pablo Picasso and sat extremely still (resembling the original image) on a chair against one of the white walls for an hour. Following this the cloudface stood up and left the galleries via the same route.

OKA: What did you aim to communicate and did you want or anticipate audience engagement? 

LA: I've created a few performance works that have been presented to large groups of people in the past (see 'Jam in The Dark') and whilst one imagines the event in advance there is no real way of anticipating how the viewer will respond to the work, nor should I want to unless it is actually part of the performance — I think you lose a certain energy. In terms of the cloudface performance it was not necessary to directly interact with the audience in an overly animated manner — cloudface's approach to the situation was to keep things minimal, including movements, pace and gestures. Cloudface's presence alone was enough to garner attention from the audience.

OKA: There’s a fascination with audio and visual archives at the centre of your work. Why are you so interested in archives or looking at the past?

LA: I grew up at in a moment where the library as a physical place was very important for generating and disseminating information that you were unlikely to find anywhere else — the internet was not yet readily available to the masses in the way that T.V. was, so growing up with that aspect of society still very much intact I believe that interest in the archive, the story and the narrative naturally rubbed off on me.

The projects 'Meh Mogya' and 'More Mogya' came out of my interest in the audio archive, it's connections with one's heritage and how the classic sounds of highlife music might be re-presented today. I made certain that by producing these works they would be presented in the form of vinyl records to keep the dignity of the highlife legacy intact — additionally, the works are also available as downloads which is important to share ideas and information. That beauty of current technologies is that you can effectively spread a message using very little means.

200 libraries were shut across the UK in 2012 and that figure is set to increase to 300 in 2013. My generation is probably going to be the last to truly experience the library as a physical environment that you can visit in the UK. Don't get me wrong, I am hugely fascinated by what new technologies can bring with regards to instant on-demand information. But that tactile, intimate connection to a book draws me close to the mysteries contained within a text. It’s a different experience to reading via a backlit screen. The same goes for sound — the ritual that involves taking a vinyl out of the sleeve, placing it on the record deck and aligning the stylus with the groove... that ability to observe the artwork and liner notes. I mean, you can't do that with an mp3 can you?

I like the idea of digging something up that is hardly heard or talked of because history has forgotten. It allows me to have a conversation that reveals its relevance through my intervention with the material. I want to have important, necessary discussions regarding life, the human condition and, of course, I want to have fun whilst I'm making art. If I don't enjoy it I tend to put it to the side.

OKA: Going back to the black head with red lips, or, cloudface - can you talk about your choice to work repeatedly with this motif? Does it also come out of the archive? 

LA: When I first introduced this iconography in 2007 with the series 'LEMME SKOOL U' I hadn't figured out a name for the motif. I was interested in depicting the experience of being categorised and treated like an alien based on the colour of my skin and my origins. I instinctively used photoshop to create this very simple avatar and when I would present my work to young people they’d refer to it as 'cloudface.' I like the way young people interpret art — they apply a beautiful, creative, naivety that is usually lost by the time they reach adulthood — and they aren't afraid to share these ideas. The reason behind my choice to continue to use this iconography is simple: it ‘s very relevant to the sociopolitical discussions taking place in and outside of the UK.

OKA: Cloudface brings to mind the golliwog and blackface. Is it your intention to evoke those allusions? Why impose that racist history on such personal images?  

LA: The cloudface was partially inspired by the experience of seeing the Robertson's Golly mascot on marmalade jars as a child during breakfast and other family meals. In my youth, I always associated the Golly with what an alien might be. When designing cloudface I did further research on the Robertson's Golly character and found out that it was only discontinued in 2001, the company apparently retired the character not because of it's racist connotations, but that the company wanted to 'move with the times.' My inspiration for cloudface also comes from comics and anime; 'V' (from Alan Moore's 'V for Vendetta') in particular his Guy Fawkes mask (made famous through the Occupy Movement) and also Laughing Man from the Ghost in The Shell Series. By mixing these various elements I want to have a lasting relevant conversation about prejudice in it's many guises. Just because images of Golliwogs and Blackface are not paraded in the way that they were in the past, it doesn't mean the world has thrown that type of mentality to the dust. I think in the UK we are quite guilty of easily sweeping moments like these under the carpet in the hope that no one will unearth them. Stare at a clown long enough and the jokes begin to disappear. I work with images that include my family as a starting point for telling a story that will open up and become less about the singular moment and more about plural debates.

OKA: How did you find the images that you used in the Glyph series? And how did your relationship to the people in the photographs influence how you used the images? 

LA: The images are from family photo albums — we have so many — and most if not all of the people in the images are relatives. I wanted to reveal the interior/exterior event. In some of the images people pose as if they are advertising a suit or dress in a catalogue. I asked my mother about the poses and she told me that at the centre were notions of the individuals’ pride and self-respect. My mother would send these images with letters back home to Ghana letting the family know that all was well.

OKA: What was your experience of performing at Tate Modern? What were you hoping to communicate with your performance and what was the reality of the audience response? 

LA: It was the most unique experience I've had presenting a performance to date — wearing the mask/helmet required special breathing and meditation techniques that I practised with the help of youtube videos! Being under that helmet there was a cocktail of stifling, euphoric, blinding and exhilarating moments. One of the biggest thoughts that I had both before and during the performance was the possibility of failure — I knew that I was taking some risks with this performance and that it might not have been effective or successful... I could have passed out! To have all of these feelings and emotions churning through my body it was an enormous challenge for to stay as still as possible during that hour. But sometimes it is necessary to take some risks in order to bring something new, interesting and meaningful to the table. I couldn't tell you what was actually going on during the performance since I couldn't see a thing through that helmet but I did ask some people that I'd invited, what they thought of the work — there was a mixture of responses; surprised, uncomfortable, and overall fascination.

OKA: Why did you choose to stage the performance in a room full of Picasso? 

LA: When I was planning the performance I instantly knew that by way of introducing him (beyond the original photograph work), in order for cloudface to thrive he needed a foundation within one of the gallery spaces that resonated most with him. That seated moment during the performance simply would not have been as effective without allowing the surreal, bold tendencies that exist within his visage to communicate with specific artwork that was nearby. I scanned all of the galleries for that adequate vantage point of execution. The room that held work by Picasso spoke in a way that the other rooms couldn't, both on a formal, conceptual and even cultural level.

OKA: It seems a lot of your work interrupts or disorientates by placing the out-of-the-ordinary within the accepted or ordinary...

LA: It must have been the endless hours of playing Super Mario Bros. videogames in my youth... I'm fascinated with the potential of providing an alternative outlook to that which might seemingly be mundane in order to spark up worthwhile conversation. The Evening Standard newsstand works offer a good example of the heist-like activity that I conduct in my practice. In order to challenge the the status quo I intervene on a current state of affairs with a parallel universe type of story, something that might have a science fictional or comical edge which I then inject onto the newsstand headlines, but beyond the words there is something else going on. For some people life is about accepting, following and tolerating, for others it is about questioning that which exists. I participated in a group show a few years ago in Liverpool - when the show ended I had a flick through the comments book and noticed that an attendee had left a message for me reading "Larry Achiampong does my head in. I'd like to do his head in!"

Video of the full performance

Selected images from Larry Achiampong's "Glyth Series"